The world has gone through a bit of a camera revolution. Taking stills and making video has been a special occasion for most of the camera’s history. Working with stills and video required the services of an expert or learning how to be one yourself.
That all changed with the advent of digital cameras and eventually the camera phone. Everyone always has an HD camera on them and so taking a photo or video of something that you found interesting has become second nature.
A whole culture has sprung up around the taking and sharing of photos and videos. People have built entire careers around platform such as YouTube or Instagram.
Drone technology has integrated well with this culture, providing a way to take photos and videos that simply didn’t exist before, but for most of the short history of camera drones, they’ve been too expensive and niche for most people to buy into them.After all, you can’t really build a drone into a smartphone. At least not yet.
A Drone for All?
That may very well be where the DJI Spark comes into the picture For one thing, the base package is priced at just under $500. That’s not cheap exactly, but it moves this camera drone into the realm of the average smartphone user who is serious about making interesting footage and want’s to capture things from a new angle.
It’s also aimed at the customer who doesn’t necessarily want to know the ins and outs of drone piloting. After all, most people who love their phone cameras are not necessarily interested in photography.
Which is why the DJI Spark is built from the ground up to be a camera drone for people who don’t really want to know that much about camera drones. You don’t have much to learn and it’s possible to be up and taking both photos and videos within minutes of switching your Spark on for the first time.
There’s an App for That
You see, the DJI Spark is essentially a smartphone accessory. It’s been designed with the primary goal of letting people enter the camera drone market using knowledge they already have.
There is no dedicated controller in the standard package. Instead, the Spark mostly flies itself using the culmination of technologies DJI developed and funded through it’s big, expensive professional drones.
The Spark is designed to be intelligent and mostly autonomous. You communicate with it through the app or through hand gestures. It’s possible to take direct control using on-screen touch joysticks, but anyone who using virtual sticks to play mobile games will tell you that’s no fun. So most people who buy the Spark are probably only going to use it as a self-flying robot which relies on its own intelligence.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since DJI have consistently shown us that when it comes to giving drones eyes, ears and brains they are at the top of the game. So be careful to use the Spark’s price and size to judge it. Make no mistake, this is one of the most technically advanced consumer camera drones on the market today.
DJI Spark Specs
For the money that DJI is asking it would be ludicrous to expect something as powerful as the Inspire or it’s larger brothers. This is a modestly-sized machine with limited flight times and not a lot of horsepower under the hood. It’s a drone that brings value through it’s brains, not brawn.
So keep that in mind as we look over the numbers and remember that this is a drone for everybody, not just drone nerds who think anything under $2000 is slumming it!
DJI Spark Camera
Let’s start with one of the most important specification: the camera. High quality cameras are just getting cheaper by the day and DJI is taking full advantage of that with the Spark.
DJI have equipped it with a 1/23” sensor, f/2.6 wide angle lense and mechanical gimbal. So you can expect stabilized footage not to far off early Phantoms.
Because the sensor is so large there’s also plenty of room for digital stabilization. After all, a 1080p video only has 2.1 megapixels in it, but the Spark can take 12 megapixel stills.Plenty of overhead.
Unfortunately you can only do 30fps video at 1080p, we still don’t know if that will be expanded in a software update later, but 60fps video (even at 720p) would be welcome and plenty of people like the more “cinematic” 24fps option for drone footage.
Luckily, thanks to YouTube and the horde of people who have already gone out and bought a Spark, we don’t have to rely on the paper specifications to judge whether the footage is good or not. YouTube is filled with examples from everyday people. For example, have a look at this great clip taken in Italy:
The video is pretty stable, the colours pop and the wide angle lens shows minimal distortion. Given how little the Spark costs I can’t help but give it the thumbs up in the camera quality competition.
DJI Spark Controller
The standard package does not include a dedicated controller, instead you are expected to control the Spark entirely with the App and of course the gesture controls. However, for about $150 you can buy a traditional physical controller, which is also included in the premium bundle discussed a little further down.
If you do opt to buy the dedicated controller, it transforms that Spark into a smart, yet limited, self-flying drone into a surprisingly capable traditional camera drone. Like a mini version of the Inspire or other high-end drones. The controller can connect to a mobile device for live video display and there’s a holder system to keep the screen in place.
This controller is unique to the DJI Spark, at least for now, and is a compact little thing. As far as I can tell there’s no way to use the controller from the larger DJI controls with this drone, although that too may change.
The stated max battery life of the controller is about 2.5 hours.
There’s a third control mode which uses hand gestures to tell the drone what to so. You can wave your hand to make the drone back off, come closer and snap a picture. This is a standout feature of the DJI Spark and really hammers home the idea that this is a camera drone anyone can use no matter their previous experience.
Spark Maximum Range
The dedicated controller has a maximum video transmission and control range of 2KM according to DJI, although obviously that comes with some big caveats in terms of interference and line of sight.
There’s no explicit statement of range when it comes to using a phone as the controller, but the maximum WiFi range is 100m horizontally and 50m vertically. Obviously the WiFi antenna in a smartphone is not going to compete with the beefed-up ones in the dedicated controller. Whether that really matters is another matter entirely, since this is a small drone with a limited flight range. It’s very unlikely that you’ll want to go that far out.
In any case, should your Spark get out of range it has the same GPS-powered return functions as its bigger brothers.
DJI says the intelligent flight battery that the Spark uses is good for 16 minutes of flight. Most of the tests I’ve seen in real-world conditions puts that number closer to the 12 minute mark before you have to seriously consider bringing her in for a landing.
The good news is that you can charge the drone from USB, so battery banks can get you juiced up again without having to head home. You can also buy more DJI battery packs to reduce downtime.
Size and Weight
The Spark is small. Bigger than a nano-drone and smaller than something like the old Parrot AR. It’s best described as a “mini drone” which is exactly what DJI does. The square footprint of the Spark puts it at 143×143 millimeters. It’s 55 mm in height and 170 mm diagonally.
This means that you can both hold and launch the Spark from the palm of your hand, although with those feisty rotors you may wish to go with the optional rotor guards, which cost about $19.
You may also want them for indoor flight, which the Spark is the perfect size for.
Given how small it is, you’d expect the Spark to be quite light and you’d be right! It weighs in at only 300g, which should make it a doddle to carry around just about everywhere you go. That is, after all, the point of this drone.
The DJI Spark Fly More Combo
For about $200 over the base price of the standard drone package, you can get the “fly more combo” from DJI. For the extra outlay you get the Spark, the dedicated remote, two intelligent flight batteries, a hub charger, a shoulder bag and the rotor guards.
The basic package only has one battery, a regular USB cable and a single battery charger.
It seems like a pretty sweet deal for the money, considering that just the radio controller costs $150 if bought separately, but then you have to start thinking about the DJI Mavic Pro, which has a base price of $999. Sure that’s another $300, but the fly more combo turns the $500 Spark casual drone into a $700 “real”drone. Which means it’s in the same price range as the Mavic. Which is why I’ll now compare the two in a way that DJI never intended.
DJI Spark vs Mavic Pro
Does the Mavic Pro present such a superior platform that you should spring for the extra money? Let’s look at some of the facts.
First of all, the Spark is limited to 1080p 30fps video and nothing else. The Mavic Pro on the other hand, will 4K and presents you with a number of video options. So if you don’t find video quality settings confusing the Mavic is obviously better. If however the Spark’s video looks just fine to your eyes, there’s little reason to fork out more dough.
Although the Mavic has a much higher resolution than the Spark, their image sensors are the same size. Which means that actual pixels on the Spark are bigger. Strangely enough, this can be an advantage, since the bigger pixels each get more light. In some cases this means the lower resolution Spark video can have better colours and “pop” more. As usual, just find some footage online to compare, although you’ll need a 4K display to give the Mavic Pro video a fair chance.
The Mavi Pro has a much better gimbal that works in three axes compared to the Spark’s mere two. In practice the Spark won’t fly in conditions where this matters much, such as high altitudes, but it is a difference.
The Mavic is just over 14 kph faster than the Spark. Not only that, it has a way bigger range. Where the Spark with remote can’t go further away than 2km, the Mavic Pro can range out to 7 km. At 27 minutes the Mavic will also stay in the air more than twice as long as the Spark.
The Spark is a seriously impressive drone both for the money and the high level of technological sophistication it contains. Yes it has a short battery life, limited video options and needs you to spend more money to unlock its full potential, but I predict that this little guy is going to sell a lot of people on the idea of owning a camera drone.
The intelligent automatic flight systems, indoor flight sensors and gesture controls put the Spark well ahead of drones that cost quite a bit more and now look positively primitive in comparison.
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